Regency thrills and chills: Jane Austen's "horrid novels"

Do you think that the popularity of dark, scary thrillers is a recent phenomenon? If you do, I’d like to introduce you to the “horrid novels” of the Regency era – just in time to add to your Halloween reading list.

If you read Austen’s Northanger Abbey you’ll find a discussion of seven "horrid" novels that the worldly Isabella Thorpe insists that Catherine Morland, the naïve young heroine, read straight away. Not only were these stories familiar to Jane Austen, she satirizes them in Northanger Abbey. 

In Austen's story, 17-year-old Catherine is heavily influenced by the Gothic novels she reads. As a result  she believes she sees evidence of sinister deeds,  including murder, when she visits her friend's home, Northanger Abbey. Before we can get to a happy ending, Catherine must mature, rein in her imagination and appreciate the difference between fiction and real life. 

The Horrid Novels

Here are the seven Gothic novels (with their actual publication dates) that Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland in Austen's sprightly tale. For over a century scholars thought that Austen made up some of these book titles, but further research proved that all of these books actually did exist. 

  1. The Castle of Wolfenbach, by Eliza Parsons (1793)
  2. Clermont, by Regina Maria Roche (1798)
  3. The Mysterious Warning, by Eliza Parsons (1796)
  4. The Necromancer, or The Tale of the Black Forest, by Ludwig Flammenberg (1794)
  5. The Midnight Bell, by Francis Lathom (1798)
  6. The Orphan of the Rhine, by Eleanor Sleath (1798)
  7. The Horrid Mysteries, by Carl Grosse (1796) - translated from German by Peter Will

Austen also has her heroine discuss two other books that were wildly popular at the time: The Italian (1797) and Catherine's favorite, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), both by Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe, an English author whose lifetime encompassed the Regency, is considered a pioneering Gothic novelist, and her five bestsellers made her the highest-paid professional writer of the 1790s. 

Some Characteristics of 18th-19th Century Gothic Novels

Though the storylines and the settings varied somewhat, Gothic fiction during Jane Austen's time had several common characteristics. 

An atmosphere of mystery was a given, along with plenty of drama, fear and suspense. Here are few other important elements that crop up often in these tales:

  • A crumbling, gloomy manor house or castle, preferably haunted, with a mysterious and dark history
  • Paranormal events and/or supernatural manifestations- i.e. ghosts
  • A dastardly villain (dark and brooding, but somehow compelling)
  • A brave hero (who may also be dark and brooding) 
  • A beautiful, persecuted heroine who is also virtuous and brave
  • And, of course, Romance (with a capital R)

Later Gothic fiction also featured monsters, such as Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, and the titular vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula, written in 1897. 

Gothic Fiction and Film Today

Gothic fiction, and especially its sub-genre Gothic horror fiction, is every bit as popular today as it was during the Regency era. Vampires are espeically well-received by the reading public. Notable examples include the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, and Charlaine Harris's  The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which was adapted for television as the HBO series True Blood

Gothic-inspired novels, like many of those written by Stephen King, translate especially well into film and also appeal to modern-day horror fans. So do the marvelously weird and creative films of Tim Burton, including Beetlejuice, Dark ShadowsThe Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and his version of Alice in Wonderland.

I guess it all comes down to whether, or how, you like to be scared, especially on Halloween. As for me, I like humor with my frights. So, on that note I'll leave you with a funny scene from the modern  Gothic film classic Beetlejuice, when a dinner party in a haunted house goes horridly astray. 

Happy Halloween!

Images courtesy of Pixabay

1 comment:

  1. Just when I assumed that today's horror flicks have been conceived in the creative, perhaps even warped, modern minds of this generation's script writers, I find out that the elements for this wildly popular film genre are actually common denominators of the "horrid novels" of Jane Austen's time. Nothing new under the sun, I guess. Still, anyone who can take those six ingredients required to create a Gothic novel and weave them into a compelling story gets high marks for imagination and writing skill.

    It's interesting that the seven "horrid novels" Jane had Isabella Thorpe recommend to Catherine Morland were thought to be an invention. Not so! If I've learned anything about the great Jane Austen, it would be that her stories, her characters, and their situations have their origins much more in fact than in fiction.


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